Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dirty Old Town

Long ago, they used to call them “city symphonies,” documentaries in unabashed praise of the modern city. Today, they are far more personal, and bittersweet. Guy Madden’s My Winnipeg was the best film I saw last year. Needless to say, it won’t be mentioned anywhere in the “Academy’s” well-covered nominations today. Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City, a poisoned valentine to Liverpool, (he calls it “a love song and a eulogy”) is this year’s version. Like a grumpy old uncle, Davies (b. 1945) explores his anguished (is there ever any other kind?) gay Catholic boyhood in a place that had some of Europe’s worst slums well into the 20th century. Hell hath no fury like a lapsed altar boy. Quoting many, from Willem De Kooning (“The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time”) to T.S. Eliot, with musical interludes like the original version of Dirty Old Town: “I met my love by the gasworks croft/Dreamed a dream by the old canal/kissed my girl by the factory wall/Dirty old town, dirty old town… we’ll chop you down like an old dead tree,” the film mixes archival footage and contemporary views, especially of the Three Graces, the neoclassical buildings that anchor the city’s heart.

Unmentioned, but necessary on this side of the Atlantic, I think, is that Liverpool (800 years old in 2007) grew fat in the Atlantic slave trade, and its worthies made fortunes on slave cotton. Radicalism naturally found a home in such conditions. (Davies’s anti-royalism is refreshing.) Great numbers of Irish came over to work in the port, leading to much friction over jobs, religion, and football. During WWII the city was severely bombed. The Beatles, I think you’ve heard of. Davies, who early went for tortured classical music, was not amused by the moptops. As an aside, the Pogues’ better known version of Dirty Old Town changes the first line to “I met my love by the gasworks wall” presumably on the assumption that nobody would know what a “croft” is, and, because they would be listening on a desert island without a dictionary, couldn't look it up.

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